A Horror Commentary: Assessing the Future of Found Footage

Gail Spencer

Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk







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Example of 2014: Willow Creek

Undoubtedly the horror of 2014 has been the phenomenal Babbadook with a story that even sounds scary at logline level: a boy and mother terrorised by a creature that comes out of the pop-up book of the same name. The film was not a massive budgeted feature, but a small production funded in part by a crowd funding initiative on Kickstarter. The idea, the narrative, the writing and the performances are spot on and the film is garnering a reputation for being the scariest film since The Exorcist. In truth, the success of The Babbadook is due to it having a plot line and dramatic tension which knits in firmly to the psychologies and circumstances of the characters: Spielberg was always excellent at this: the broken home is conduit for external forces that see and feel the missing harmony of a nuclear unit.

This latest horror is as much commentary on the plight of the single mother as it is horror feature. In the exceptional Candyman, the urban legend represents the tensions in the rich and poor within the life of a block of flats in an inner city. The idea of a circumstance and tension feeding a hungry demon summoned by accident is still something with considerable mileage.  Insidious covered the same territory but with Astral Flying as travelling means for the uneasy spirit: what was very disturbing here was the idea of the victim being preyed upon by a parasite for years having hung about the poor adult from childhood.

The Found Footage horror sub-genre was pre-empted by the astounding success of The Blair Witch Project, a film with a great and favourable budget to receipts ratio. It was however, flawed with an irritating style (most of the film is spent looking at twigs either at ground or eye level) with a very annoying and unsympathetic central character. It was a runaway success in the underground student bars and clubs as it pertained to show how easy it was to make an amateurish feature into a box office success. It cost relatively little to make ($10k) but took millions. Prior to this, Mad Max held the budget to takings title and both films are undoubted cult favourites. Paranormal Activity has been a very successful franchise with the initial feature frightening the bejesus out of Spielberg claiming that the film itself was spooked.  It was nearer in story to Insidious (a film that came after) than Blair Witch, the focus being possession and haunting rather than earthy witches and goblins folklore.  After the release of Troll Hunter which was favoured by critics and audience alike, it was clear that there was room for other legends in horror to be given the once over in this sub-genre. Troll Hunter could and should have been better with an emphasis on the morality tale feature in the Grimm stories featuring the same creatures: Trolls were usually dwellers under bridges and the crossing of them successfully were a test of bravery or virtuousness. They were Gatekeepers between the worlds of feast/famine, good/evil.  As it was we got a riot of a film with larger than life creatures being tracked and hunted by a Nordic man with a mission.  Troll as poor man's test is a far better story option: those tested could be eaten if not deserving. This as metaphor for modern life has been sadly undernourished. 

As a checklist as to what has yet to be covered by found footage find the below useful:

Elves & Pixies
The Loch Ness Monster






The Bogeyman

The Tooth Fairy
Ghosts/Wreckage Footage

Lagoon Creatures


The list is not withstanding any mythology form from other nations. The interpretations thus far have been largely Western. There have been Extra Terrestrial takes but presented from the Western perspective. In all tales there has been the missing link of the finder in the story and this gap needs to be filled by something other than 'On Screen' narrative as to where the footage is/was found.

Willow Creek       

Director: Bobcat Goldthwait    78mins

Willow Creek is set in two parts, or rather two and a half. We are introduced to the main leads; a man and his gal are going to the place where the Legend of Bigfoot famous 8mm was shot, the 1967 Patterson grainy account of a Yeti in the woods. There is the journey, the bit in the woods and the finale. This is as much a travelogue as it is a found footage gem: the aspects of Americana that are portrayed in the journey to this place in the middle of no-where are right on the money.  There is never a feeling of the fakery in this, unlike the other found footage film of the year The Borderlands with dodgy acting and location shots throughout. All of this is compelling and convincing. The couple Jim and Kelly are very convincing as the believing/non-believing duo (played by Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore) and most of the set up relates to this relationship. They discover together the small, sad businesses that have emerged from the tourist aspects of Bigfoot, the restaurants, the bookshop, the petrol stations. The humour is shared in the observations and the audience feels in Act One as fellow travellers in a determined quest. We share the couple's take on the small mindedness of the business owners and there is a very nasty encounter with a guy evidently a bit cheesed off with tourist interceptors. The acting is just spot on and professional throughout.

Of course this helps with not just the suspension of disbelief needed for horror especially but helps engage with the characters. When Jim has something special to ask of his gal in the tent - we are keen to know the answer. Act Two is the weak bit. There is too long spent by these two in a tent with the camera focused on them slowly freaking out. The drama could have been better delivered with intermittent action. This would not have taken much in terms of Special Effects to deliver: the idea of a pair, with a woman yet to fully commit to her man, having the relationship tested (and him in the process), in a tent with just this between them and a big fuck off monster outside is a good one with legs: big hairy legs. It could have well delved into B movie territory with some monster shadows and clawing.  As is, the sound effects are like two coconuts being clanged together. Had the monster come to claim Kelly, with Jim going in pursuit after hearing her scream, to find her ravished would have been a bit of a clincher and a great story in the tradition of how these creatures have always been portrayed: primitive and lusty.

The time in the tent doesn't keep with the stakes that are set in the time we have had with these two in the lead up to them being there. What is good about the found footage genre is that it doesn't limit the intense action to the night time. By the time a full night has gone by, the pair is intent on going home. The usual 'going round in circles' plot twist is by now, lame, expected and doesn't add to the drama of the lost being so. What would have been a great twist would have been the nasty guy turning up as a kind of 'Yeti familiar' who feeds the creature tourists that don't know better and go away when told. This would have been a commentary on the ever problematic tension between the need for tourism and the hatred of it.
The found footage sub-genre has still a lot going for it and will be used as a method of choice due to its budget versus box office potential that is proven and measurable. The need though is for the writers and directors to know their low-budget b movie film history and literacy to delve and dip into. This example has the benefit of being credible in its presentation of a particular necessary evil (tourism) and eternal problems of disruption, nosiness and curiosity being perpetrated on locales. It has the prospect of being a morality tale as regards the lessons in leaving the unexplored just that: civilisation doesn't need to occur everywhere. And the environmental costs are proving detrimental. It is also very curious as to why found footage is limited to the horror genre or is consistently used in the context of a classical horror monster or mythology.

Found footage can and should be delivered with a lot more imagination within a wider dramatic context. It will be interesting to see what 2015 brings in terms of delivering this product in different and imaginative ways.

Gail Spencer

All films quoted here are available on DVD on Amazon


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